Kyle Lowry didn’t just deliver that 53-foot, on-target pass on OG Anunoby’s game-winning basket in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday. Lowry got the Toronto Raptors to that moment, scoring a game-high 31 points on 13-for-23 shooting. And he did it by getting into the paint like he never has in his career.
The Raptors were searching for offense. The Celtics had slowed their transition game, and their half-court issues were evident. After scoring 123 points per 100 possessions in their first-round sweep of Brooklyn, the champs had scored just 95.5 through the first two games of this series.
Lowry was 1-for-12 from 3-point range, with 18 total points in the paint. Before Game 3, he got some advice from somebody whose name he wouldn’t reveal.
“I got a text from a real close friend of mine,” Lowry said, “and he kinda told me, ‘Stop waiting.’ And that was pretty much the game plan for me tonight, to stop waiting and be aggressive from the jump. He was correct.”
Lowry didn’t exactly catch fire from deep. He was 2-for-8 from 3-point range in Game 3, though one of the makes was a huge pull-up that gave the Raptors a 90-89 lead with 7:15 to go in the fourth quarter.
He wasn’t counting on his jump shot, though. Lowry was attacking the basket from the very first possession of the night, when he used a Marc Gasol screen, turned the corner on Kemba Walker, slammed into Marcus Smart (whose feet were still in the restricted area) and pushed a shot over the arms of Daniel Theis. It fell in and Lowry converted the 3-point play.
Three possessions later, he took an outlet pass from Gasol and attacked Jayson Tatum in transition, drawing a goaltending violation on Theis. And three possessions after that, Lowry drove past a Tatum close-out and attacked Theis. He bumped the big man under the basket, got him in the air with a pump fake, drew contact, and tossed in a jump hook for another and-one.
“He started with a great burst,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “A great energy to get to the rim the whole night. I thought right from the tip when he turned the corner and got the foul, the and-one, he was ready to go. We didn’t do a good job on him at times, but he’s a really good player. Credit him more than anything else.”
Lowry kept the Celtics guessing by not always using the screen, and he scored or assisted on 14 of the Raptors’ first 16 points as they found a rhythm early on.
“He actually broke a couple of the set calls early tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “which is a good sign. You’ve got an idea where you can get some buckets in the first few sequences of the game, and he just put his head down and went on a couple of them. Those are good, because they’re kind of like sneak drives. The play is setting up somewhere else and boom, someone takes off. He found a couple of those early and got going.”
The Raptors’ offense did not stay in a rhythm. They scored just 19 points on 24 possessions in the second quarter and they were down four with five minutes to go in the third. That’s when their offense got a boost from the Celtics, who had Enes Kanter check in for the first time in the series, presumably to help the Boston offense against Toronto’s zone.
I think my team needed me to be more aggressive, and that’s what I needed to do tonight.”
Raptors guard Kyle Lowry
The Raptors had Kanter guard pick-and-rolls on six of their next seven half-court possessions, scoring 11 points on the first five of those. And that was the last we saw of Enes Kanter on Thursday.
Lowry played pick-and-roll for each of the Raptors’ last six possessions of the third (the last one after Kanter sat down), and then on 10 of the his team’s 20 fourth-quarter possessions prior to Anunoby’s game-winner.
“He just wanted the ball in his hands,” Nurse said. “And he wanted to try to hit the big or get in the paint, make the kick-out, or find his own shot. He was commanding the ball there late, and just needed a little help to get free.”
Here are the fourth-quarter buckets that the Lowry pick-and-roll produced:
1. Lowry gets a transition screen from Serge Ibaka, gets into the paint, and collapses the defense, helping Fred VanVleet eventually get enough space to drain his second straight 3.
2. VanVleet’s screen gets Walker switched onto Lowry. He backs down the smaller (or lighter) guard and draws the attention of Grant Williams, allowing Pascal Siakam to get good position for a post-up.
3, Lowry drains the aforementioned pull-up 3 after Gasol flips his screen on Smart.
4, With Walker playing Lowry to the side of the oncoming screen from Gasol, Lowry rejects the screen, engages Theis, and hits Gasol rolling to the rim.
5. Gasol’s second screen flattens Smart, and Lowry gets by Theis with a little hesitation for his biggest bucket of the night.
“He had to do a bunch of stuff,” Nurse said. “He had to come off some [screens]. They were jumping on his side and not letting him get to some, so he had to straight-line attack ’em. He had to cross-screen a few because of the same thing when we changed the angle of the picks.”
Lowry’s performance — the 31 points were the most he’s scored in a postseason game since 2016 — reminded Nurse of the title-clinching Game 6 of last year’s Finals, when his point guard came out firing. But Lowry was 4-for-7 from 3-point range in that game.
Thursday’s attack was something different. Lowry’s 20 points in the paint were the most he’s scored in his career, regular season or playoffs (1,007 total games).
“I played with a lot different pace tonight,” he said. “I can play a multitude of ways. I can be a pass-first, I can be a score-first, I can be on attack, defense-only. Whatever my team needs, and that’s the most important thing. I think my team needed me to be more aggressive, and that’s what I needed to do tonight.”
With the season (essentially) on the line, Lowry played the final 37:29 of Game 3. And despite all the minutes, he was carrying a heavier load than usual down the stretch, because Nurse was not going to say ‘No’ to the best player in franchise history.
“We do like to try to move it around a little bit, go from him to Fred to maybe Pascal, him and Fred alternating, just depending on the matchups,” Nurse said. “But we kind of found a … well … Kyle wanted the ball, man. He just wanted the ball. That’s all there is to it.”
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